Hearing voices, seeing things
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"This young woman, beautiful, dancing with her hair free... that symbolises everything that is forbidden and was forbidden in Afghan culture." Havana Marking. 
In 1998, word reached Nelofer Pazira, an Afghan journalist living in Canada, that an old school friend, Dyana, intended to kill herself before the final eclipse of the 20th century: she could no longer live under the Taliban and the burqa. Pazira flew to Tehran to meet the renowned Iranian director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whose previous film, The Silence, centred on a blind boy with perfect musical pitch tuning instruments in a backstreet workshop. Makhmalbaf has fathered a dynasty of cineastes - mostly settled abroad since the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 - but as a young intellectual he had ardently supported the Islamic regime's policy of manipulating film to eliminate any trace of lingering secularity from Iranian entertainment. Converted to a fresh vision after seeing Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire at the Berlin Film Festival in the late 1980s, Makhmalbaf lost his job at the ministry of culture and many of his later films were banned from distribution in Iran. 
"I told him I was determined to go into Afghanistan to find my friend before she committed suicide," she recalled, "and he should come with me and make a documentary."  He said he wouldn't, but he did make an unannounced visit to Heart, where he was so shocked by what he saw of conditions in refugee camps that he immediately began work on the idea, in 1999. Kandahar, released in May 2001, was the first movie to put visible flesh on the media's silhouette of life under Taliban rule, even as US jets scoured the ground for meaningful targets and Al Qa'ida prepared its final stand in the Tora Bora cave complex. It won UNESCO's Federico Fellini Prize, was named one of Time's 100 best films ever made, and President Bush asked for a private screening at the White House in November.
Kandahar featured Pazira in the role of Nafas, a successful, Dari-speaking journalist from the west in search of her sister. She is helped in her journey by of four guides -an old man, a boy expelled from madrasa, a black American convert to Islam who is a doctor, and a landmine victim. Each unveils some aspect of day-to-day survival in Afghanistan under the Taliban - amputees fighting for possession of artificial legs dropped by parachute, children robbing dead bodies, or mechanically chanting the Koran in school while being instructed in the use of a Kalashnikov, women struggling to breathe or to navigate under their burqa - against a "brilliantly-lighted, bleached-white desert",  as Nafas makes furtive notes on a tape recorder hidden beneath her own. In the final scene, she arrives at Kandahar, the seat of Taliban authority, as the sun goes down and, by implication, the moon is about to rise on Dyana's last night alive.
More documentary than fiction, and though based on a real episode, Kandahar is a political film that employs - mischievously, some would say, or deceptively, depending on point of view - a large degree of trompe l'oeil. The Taliban had condemned the use of still or video cameras as 'Devil's boxes' in 1996, often detaining journalists who carried them.  Makhmalbaf, Pazira, the cinematographer, Ebrahim Ghafori, and their team of local actors could not roam the Afghan landscape with impunity lest they be detained and accused of spying for Iran, a common enough charge at the time. Nor could they have elicited the same quality of response from their players if they were truly vulnerable to Taliban retribution. Kandahar was neither guerrilla-style documentary, not captured on the sly in Taliban-ruled country as claimed, but a conventional picture, filmed in an Afghan refugee camp across the border in Iran, in which scenes could be rehearsed and re-shot, free from camera-shake.  So the moving images of Afghans under Taliban misrule were partially invented: the film crew never entered Afghanistan, although Kandahar confirmed our worst imaginings - at the best possible time.
The mischievous element arose from Makhmalbaf's casting of Hassan Tantai as the film's black American convert, Tabib Sahid, playing a doctor who can only examine women through a hole cut in an all-enveloping sheet to protect the honour of the patient's husband. Tantai was an alias of the assassin, David Belfield of North Carolina, who murdered Ali Akbar Tabatabai, a critic of Ayatollah Khomeini, in Maryland in July 1980. He admitted the crime in an ABC interview in Istanbul in 1995 while on the run from US justice, before winning asylum in Tehran, where he worked for the Tehran Times. Doug Gansler, the state attorney who had tailed him since the 1995 confession, was under no illusions: "Even with the false beard, I have no doubt that was our man.' 
By design or unconsciously, Makhmalbaf was smuggling another message between the frames of Kandahar: Tehran's attempt to re-Persianise Afghan Film, the state-owned company which made its last movie in 1995. A year later, the Taliban had banned film-making altogether and, five years after that, ordered the burning of its archive of 2,900 movies. "You plant a tree to collect the fruit," said Jameel Sarwer, director of Afghan Film. "We worked for our people to have the archive, and they burned it."  But, in fact, they had not. Like the artist-doctor Mohammed Yousef Asefi, who painted water colours over his oils to convince censors there were no humans in his scenes of traditional Afghan life,  Afghan Film staff played on the Taliban's ignorance of process by surrendering prints, and not the original negatives in their care. These they hid by closing them up with wallboard in an existing room, dimming the light in the corridor to avoid their discovery during surprise inspections. "The Taliban told us," said Sarwer, "even if a small piece of film was found, we'll shoot you in the ditch where the archive was burned."
Despite this act of valour, Afghanistan's skeleton network of illicit entertainment had already surrendered to the flamboyant attractions of Bollywood movies, with their unveiled actresses, sinuous arms, staged kisses, and song-and-dance routines. With the expulsion of the Taliban from Kabul on 12 November, portraits of Shahrukh Khan, Ajay Devgan, Sunny Deol, Aishwarya Rai and other Hindi stars were removed from their hiding places to take pride of place in shops, hair-dressing salons, travel bureaux and billboards. Six days later, the Bakhtar, one of the city's 17 cinemas reopened with a celebratory double-bill of an Afghan movie, Urudj, about mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupation, and an Indian film, Elan. But the age of classic and art-house films was over in Afghanistan, just as it was in India, although a strong market existed for slices of Afghan reality abroad, where the funding was.
Among the journalists and film makers striving to enter the "forbidden country" as the war rolled out was Yvonne Ridley, chief reporter at the Sunday Express, who "became the story" in late September when she was arrested near Jalalabad after crossing the border dressed in a burqa. Transferred to Kabul prison, she met Heather Mercer, an evangelical missionary associated with Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas. In every sense, the two women were travelling in opposite directions. Mercer had been detained in August, with Dayna Curry and six other westerners employed by Shelter Now International, and charged with preaching Christianity, for which the only sentence was death.  All would be released unharmed, but the experience transformed their lives: Ridley converted to Islam, became a Muslim activist, working for Al Jazeera and Iran's Press TV, and wrote a number of books, while Mercer and Curry won a book deal, before returning as triumphant near-martyrs to Waco. The different trajectories they took foreshadowed a pattern that would soon characterise relations between liberal influence and Afghan tradition: as NATO and the aid network built up their presences in Kabul, the kaleidoscope of their humanitarian, religious and military baggage underwent an abrupt twist, rearranging the fragments into unexpected, new mosaics of complexity.
Several remarkable women made similar journeys of transition after witnessing first-hand the subjection of their Afghan sisters. Saira Shah's two documentaries for Hardcash/Channel 4, the undercover Beneath the Veil and Unholy War, filmed during the US bombing campaign, set the bar because of her fluency in local language and personal access to women's hospitals through links with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan in Peshawar. These experiences would find written form in The Storyteller's Daughter, which recounted her search for her family's roots in Paghman and, in particular, a garden created by her father, the Sufi writer, Idris Shah. Author and human rights journalist Caroline Moorhead celebrated the "increasingly popular new literature of return" among Afghan and Middle Eastern writers. 
Norwegian war correspondent Asne Seierstad preferred to focus on a single family by spending months living in the home of 'Sultan Khan', a thinly disguised portrait of Mohammed Shah Rais, who she cast as a tyrannical figure at the heartless centre of Bookseller of Kabul. Though he had run English-language bookshops since before Soviet invasion, Shah did not quite understand the line dividing journalism from fiction, and hospitality from both. "She did not understand who I am," he said during a stopover in Oslo to sue Seierstad for libel. "The host for her, I very kindly accepted her, I gave my hospitality to her, without any contract, without any financial expectation, without anything. She doesn't understand how shameful it is to write such things on paper."  The suit emerged after Bookseller was translated into English, becoming Norway's highest-earning non-fiction book; others queried Seierstad's ability to see so clearly through the veil of language. Lacking Dari, she relied on Shah's English-speaking children to weave her portrait of a dysfunctional family in which the bookseller's sister is sold for £300 to pay for his education, his married niece is murdered for taking a lover, and his first wife's sense of public humiliation when he takes a teenage girl as a second. In view of the poor, interpretive skills, said one critic, the account should be filed under "imaginative ethnography" - but there also was more that a hint of Jerry Springer and reality TV in the text.  Meanwhile, in California, Khaled Hosseini, the son of an exiled Afghan diplomat, was half-way through a genuine novel that would shortly put the censor to real test.
Many female media workers chose to stay, exchanging successful careers for new roles in aid and reconstruction. NPR's conflict reporter Sarah Chayes accepted an offer in 2002 to run Afghans for Civil Society, an NGO set up by Qayum Karzaim, the new president's older brother. Shocked by the insider corruption she witnessed in Kandahar, she went on to launch a women's cooperative producing soaps and body oils from the fruits of the Arghandab valley, near Kandahar. Saira Shah would return to work in development by 2004. After shooting Kandahar, Mohsen Makhmalbat established the Afghan Children Education Movement (ACEM) to provide the offspring of Afghan refugees in Iran with access to schooling and, after November 2001, he transferred ACEM's base of operations to Kabul, with his family, where the NGO helped to rebuild the city's orphanage and three schools in Herat. The agency also trains young actors and directors for a new Afghan cinema, and funds the production of short films by both male and female students.
There was still much to capture on film before the Kabul spring lost its petals. In 2002, Samira, Makhmalbaf's daughter, embarked on a movie in a darker key about the prospects for improving the condition of Afghan women. Five in the Afternoon, named after a lament by the Spanish Civil War poet, Federico García Lorca, follows a schoolgirl, Noqreh, as she struggles to exercise her rights to education, free expression and choice of shoes against the disapproval of her father, who rails against the "blasphemy" that has come to Kabul since the Taliban's defeat. Samira was followed around by her 14-year-old sister, Hana, who used an unobtrusive digital camera to shoot a documentary of the making of the film, entitled The Joy of Madness. She would later make The Buddha Collapsed out of Shame. The gloom deepened further with the release in 2003 of Osama, perhaps the most remarkable film to emerge from the short-lived renaissance of Afghan film.
Siddiq Barmak, a Panjshiri, had been trained in direction at the Moscow Film Institute and headed Afghan Film during the Rabbani regime, before escaping to Peshawar where he found work at the BBC radio soap opera, New Home, New Life in 1996. The germ for Osama came from a Pashtun-language press clipping that told of a girl who dresses as a boy to attend an underground school undetected. When the religious police discover both the school and her gender, according to the report, the principle was executed.  Marina Golbahari, the street beggar whom Barmak picked to star in the first film directed by an Afghan since 1995, works at first in a dairy, but then is forced to enrol with the other "boys" in a madrassa, affiliated with Al Qa'ida. When the boys notice her effeminacy, they chase and imprison her in a well; she is prosecuted in a religious court and forced to marry an elderly Mullah, whose others wives are chained at night. Jointly funded by the Iranian government and Makhmalbaf Film Fund, Osama went on to win a Golden Globe for best foreign film. Golbahari bought a two-roomed mud house for her family with her fee and was given a role in Barmak's next film, Sacrifice. 
While western audiences were being imprinted with an indelible negative of the Taliban nightmare, Kabulis reveled in breaking the silence that had brooded over the city for half a decade. "Dear fellow citizens of Kabul," said veteran newscaster, Jumila Mujahid, the first female to be heard on Radio Afghanistan since 1996, "the Taliban have fled Kabul."  Hidden satellite dishes were excavated, fixed to walls and tuned to whatever channels were in reach - mainly India's Zee, Al Jazeera and soft, blond Polish porn.  Radio Sharia and three official newspapers - the Dari Anis, Pashtu Hewad and English Kabul Times - were all that was left of a media spectrum that, while comparatively diverse under King Zahir, had narrowed to a single, strangulated cry after the Soviet invasion, the civil war and the coming of the tribes from the south. The only pilot light of protest in the last era was Zanbel-e-Gham (Hod-Carrier of Sorrow), a samizdat magazine of comment and irreligious cartoons, produced by the irrepressible Osman Akram Sargaden, and his friend, the satirical artist Mohammed Zia Kushan. It was none too subtle, but it was brave and transgressive. In one issue, a Talib devours skewers of meat while a Kabuli, looks on, chewing on his own hand; in another the eye-grate of a burkha is rendered as iron bars. "We did all this at home," said Sargarden. "We made 30 copies and gave them to a friend, someone we could trust. They would make 20-30 copies, and then whoever got a copy made 20-30 copies of theirs."  Passed from hand to hand, the jibes lifted the spirits, perhaps, as all good graffiti does, but they barely perturbed the Taliban. "[They] didn't take us seriously," he said, "because they didn't know what a joke was. They didn't know how to laugh." The other dissenting voice was TV Faizabad, in Badakhshan, a Northern Alliance province on the Tajikistan border, but its influence was purely symbolic since its transmissions could only be picked up in Faizabad's Old Town. 
As the lights dimmed in Bakhtar cinema on gala night, a thousand bulbs lit above the city as it dawned on a generation of thwarted journalists, gagged activists and frustrated businessmen - at home or abroad, male and female, young and old - just what might be possible when reconstruction funding, new technology, skills training, desk-top publishing, video conferencing, internet, email, mobile telephony and hitherto unimagined formats burst through the Silk Gorge with the goal of forging a democratic Afghanistan, based on the rule of law and equal rights for women, from the sludge of a country that had lost its heart and replaced it with a rigid, violent theocracy. Years of fighting and the US bombing campaign had destroyed three-quarters of the country's medium-wave infrastructure and all its short-wave transmitters; only two of 270 printing machines had survived; TV had been off-air for five years; and most domestic talent had fled abroad.  "This is it," said Fahim Dashty, the soon-to-be editor of Kabul Weekly who suffered 90% burns at the scene of the murder of Ahmed Shah Massoud, his distant relative. "Right now is the only real period of press freedom in Afghanistan." 
1 Andrew Tkach, 'Fight for future of Afghanistan's culture plays out on TV', CNN, 6 August 2009. [Back]
2 Mamad Haghighat, "After the revolution the cinema will carry us', The Courier, October 2000. [Back]
3 Martin Bright, 'Heartbroken of Kandahar', The Observer, 4 November 2001. [Back]
4 Deborah Young, 'Kandahar', Variety, 11 May 2001. [Back]
5 Reporters without Borders, 'Press freedom a year after the fall of the Taliban', 11 November 2002, www.rsf.org/spip.php?page=impression&id_article=4278. [Back]
6 Andrew Jack, 'Kandahar: Haunting Images, Veiled Agendas', 29 February 2002, www.culturekiosque.com/nouveau/cinema/kandahar.html [Back]
7 Fiachra Gibbon, 'Actor or Assassin?', Guardian, 10 January 2002. [Back]
8 www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0jmcfq-vqq; Shahabudin Terakhi, 'Bollywood, Afghan-style', Institute of War and Peace Reporting, 3 June 2003. [Back]
9 www.transitional-art.com/s_17.asp [Back]
10 edition.cnn.com/CNN/Programs/people/shows/curry.mercer/profile.html [Back]
11 Caroline Moorehead, 'The Storytellers' Daughter', Independent, 16 August 2003. [Back]
12 Alan Riding, 'Bookseller of Kabul v. Journalist of Oslo', New York Times, 29 October 2003. [Back]
13 Unprofessionaltranslation.blogspot.com/2009/10/bookseller-of-kabul.html [Back]
14 Maryam Maruf and Maggie Loescher, 'Osama and Afghan cinema: an interview with Siddiq Barmak', Open Democracy, 4 March 2004. [Back]
15 Carlotta Gall, 'Film gives teen fame, but not riches', New York Times, 12 March 2004. [Back]
16 Borzou Daraghi, 'A Nascent Free Press Seizes the Moment (Carefully)', Columbia Journalism Review, July/August 2002. [Back]
17 Abdul Rahman Oman Niazi, 'Satellite TV craze', IWPR, 20 May 2002. [Back]
18 Edward A Gargan, 'Amid Sorrow, satirical magazine brings joy', Internews, 6 August 2002. [Back]
19 Eric Beauchemin, 'Faizabad TV: Symbol of Resistance', Radio Nederland Wereldomroep, 20 October 2000. [Back]
20 'Afghan Media Reconstruction in Focus', BBC World Service Trust, May 2002. bbc.co.uk/worldservice/trust/docs/afghanmediareconstruction.pdf [Back]
21 Borzou Daraghi, 'A Nascent Free Press Seizes the Moment (Carefully)'. [Back]